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The history of the Chinese People's Liberation Army began in 1927 with the start of the Chinese Civil War and spans to the present, having developed from a peasant guerrilla force into the largest armed force in the world.
Throughout the centuries, two tendencies have influenced the role of the military in national life, one in peacetime and the other in times of upheaval. In times of peace and stability, military forces were firmly subordinated to civilian control. The military was strong enough to overcome domestic rebellions and foreign invasion, yet it did not threaten civilian control of the political system. In times of disorder, however, new military leaders and organizations arose to challenge the old system, resulting in the militarization of political life. When one of these leaders became strong enough, he established a new political order ruling all China. After consolidating power, the new ruler or his successors subordinated the military to civilian control once again.
Since the 1960s, China had considered the Soviet Union the principal threat to its security; lesser threats were posed by long standing border disputes with Vietnam and India. China's territorial claims and economic interests made the South China Sea an area of strategic importance to China. Although China sought peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland China, it did not rule out the use of force against the island if serious internal disturbances, a declaration of independence, or a threatening alliance occurred.
The divisions of the "Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army" () were named according to historical circumstances, sometimes in a nonconsecutive way. Early Communist units often formed by defection from existing Kuomintang forces, keeping their original designations. Moreover, during the Chinese Civil War, central control of separate Communist-controlled enclaves within China was limited, adding to the confusion of nomenclature of Communist forces. By the time of the 1934 Long March, numerous small units had been organized into three unified groups, the First Front Red Army (//Hóng Y? F?ngmiàn J?n), the Second Front Red Army (//Hóng Èr F?ngmiàn J?n) and the Fourth Front Red Army (//Hóng Sì F?ngmiàn J?n), also translated as "First Front Red Army", "Second Front Red Army" and "Fourth Front Red Army".
Mao's military thought grew out of the Red Army's experiences in the late 1930s and early 1940s and formed the basis for the "people's war" concept, which became the doctrine of the Red Army and the PLA. In developing his thought, Mao drew on the works of the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (4th century BC) and Soviet and other theorists, as well as on the lore of peasant uprisings, such as the stories found in the classical novel Shuihu Zhuan (Water Margin) and the stories of the Taiping Rebellion. Synthesizing these influences with lessons learned from the Red Army's successes and failures, Mao created a comprehensive politico-military doctrine for waging revolutionary warfare. People's war incorporated political, economic, and psychological measures with protracted military struggle against a superior foe. As a military doctrine, people's war emphasized the mobilization of the populace to support regular and guerrilla forces; the primacy of men over weapons, with superior motivation compensating for inferior technology; and the three progressive phases of protracted warfare--strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive (see Mobile Warfare). During the first stage, enemy forces were "lured in deep" into one's own territory to overextend, disperse, and isolate them. The Red Army established base areas from which to harass the enemy, but these bases and other territory could be abandoned to preserve Red Army forces. In addition, policies ordered by Mao for all soldiers to follow, the Eight Points of Attention, instructed the army to avoid harm to or disrespect for the peasants, regardless of the need for food and supplies. This policy won support for the Communists among the rural peasants.
On January 15, 1949, the Communist Party Central Military Commission decided to reorganise the regional armies of the PLA into four field armies.
In January 1974, the PLA saw action in the South China Sea following a long-simmering dispute with the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) over the Paracel Islands. The PLA successfully seized control of three disputed islands in a naval battle and a subsequent amphibious assault.
A Sino-Vietnamese War revealed specific shortcomings in military capabilities and thus provided an additional impetus to the military modernization effort. The border war, the PLA's largest military operation since the Korean War, was essentially a limited, offensive, ground-force campaign. The war had mixed results militarily and politically. Although the numerically superior Chinese forces penetrated about fifty kilometers into Vietnam, the PLA was not on good terms with its supply lines and was unable to achieve a decisive victory in the war. Both China and Vietnam claimed victory.
In 1981, the PLA conducted its largest military exercise in North China since the founding of the People's Republic of China. In 1985, Deng Xiaoping announced that the PLA would demobilize 1 million troops.
On the other hand, border battles and skirmishes continued throughout the 1980s.